16th July 2019: Responsible Migrant Worker Recruitment Practices: How to Move from Rhetoric to Reality

By Andy Hall


Given increasing interest globally in combatting forced labour and modern day slavery in global supply chains, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), Responsible Business Alliance (RBA), Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Humanity United come together today to host the workshop Driving Responsible Recruitment in Asia in Malaysia. The Malaysian Minister for Human Resources will present a key note speech at this event


Unethical recruitment is a key driver placing many migrant workers(indeed most workers migrating to Malaysia) in situations of forced labourparticularly as a result of debt bondage. Impoverished individuals continue to pay highly for dirty, dangerous and demeaning work within ASEAN during expensive and non-transparent recruitment processes  even for work at companies sourcing to global buyers claiming a commitment to ethical/zero cost” recruitment. 


There is currently much rhetoric but too little commitment of actual resources and genuine effort to ensure significant moves towards ethical recruitment for migrant workers. A lack of on the ground knowledge and experience how best to support ethical recruitment practices and concerning key factors that must be effectively addressed to ensure success is also impeding progress Electronics Watch’s practical guidance outlines steps to be taken to ensure ethical recruitment of migrant workers. But more than this useful guidance, a radical change of mindset and approach is also needed. 


As a priority, ethical recruitment models that seek to monitor and then control subagents or brokers involved in recruitment processes in origin countries need piloting. Registered subagents or broker, whether lawful or not under local laws, are an indispensable actor in most migrant recruitment channels linking workers from rural areas to agencies in capitals. Short timelines, complex recruitment processes and worker’s limited education necessitate that most migrants, even those processed by supposed ‘ethical’ recruiters, engage subagents or brokers during recruitment. 


Few global companies, their local suppliers and ethical recruitment projects have policies and practices to ensure effective monitoring and control of subagents or brokers to ensure they don’t take money from workers. Increasing regulatory pressures on buyers and suppliers to be diligent against forced labour means recruitment agencies in origin countries are simply forbidden to use subagents, without any workable alternatives offered. As a result, agencies don’t disclose or even deny using subagents. They claim instead workers are referred to them, recruited from extensive databases or simply walk into their offices without engaging or paying sub-agentsHowever, more honest recruitment agencies report employers requesting quotations hiding subagent costs and turning a blind eye to their fee taking. Whilst some migrants don’t get recruited via subagents, even among supposed “ethical” agencies direct recruitment is a rarity


Similarly, migrant workers often nowadays don’t reveal what they paduring recruitment to subagents, brokers or agencies, above the defined legal limits. Workers are increasingly threatened or coached by agents, subagents or brokers, sometimes with complicity from employers, to only report payments in compliance with local laws. This lack of disclosure or deceit by workers and recruitment agencies is generally not uncovered by social compliance audits. Workers are forced as a condition of recruitment to sign affidavits or appear in video statements prior to departure stating they didn’t pay excessive fees or expenses. Paperwork often satisfies auditors recruitment was lawful or ethical. 


This so called ‘fake’ ethical recruitment is increasing, whilst there are at the same time more ethical recruitment projects and certification scheme frameworks being developed including IOM’s IRIS, the RBA’s Responsible Labour Initiative (RLI), Fair Hiring Initiative’s (FHI) On The Level and IHRB’s Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment. Fake’ recruitment results in reality from the general lack of real commitment by global buyers, their suppliers and ethical recruitment projects to ensure a move to ethical employer pays recruitment, alongside a lack of on the ground experience and knowledge on how to harness innovative recruitment practices as solutions to real challenges faced in this field. 


In addition, most States still do not have developed and workable regulations to promote responsible recruitment. Often global companies don’t have ethical recruitment policies either. Without policies and regulations, or with policies and regulations in place that restrict certain conduct (like use of sub-agents or low recruitment fee limits) in a way that cannot be applied in practice, ethical recruitment practices cannot easily be mainstreamed. Even if positive regulations or policies are in place, rarely is there genuine enforcement such that these remain at the level of rhetoric but not reality


Likewise, ethical recruitment costs rarely feature in contracts between global buyers, public procurement agencies and their suppliers but are instead ‘social compliance’ requests made by CSR or human rights teams. ‘Aspirations’ often don’t translate into conversations by buying teams with suppliers on purchase price and production timelines that dictate what will happen in reality during migrant worker recruitment, and that determine who will cover the recruitment costs.


As a result of this limited private sector and government commitment to ethical recruitment, a “kickbacks” recruitment business model remains prevalent. Companies and their HR teams are paid to issue demand letters for hiring migrants to informally selected recruitment agencies. This is instead of actually paying fees to agencies for the workers they hire. Compounding this situation, systemic corruption within multiple government agencies brought about by overly bureaucratic recruitment processes is present in origin, transit and destination countries. Corruption is often facilitated by the local recruitment agencies themselves. Taken together, prevalence of systems of kickbacks and corruption ensure subagents or brokers at the end of the recruitment supply chains in the origin country take money from workers just to ensure costs are covered and that all actors, private sector and government, in a bloated supply chain are paid. 


Alternative recruitment models that address some of these challenges needto be piloted with real lessons learnt and shared.  Since 2015, Thai Union Group has worked with the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) in Thailand and Myanmar to seek to monitor and control its recruiters use of subagents in recruitment processes for more than 30, 000 migrant workers from Myanmar. This alternative and relatively successful model of interactive migrant worker recruitment, albeit not without its challenges and not fully “ethical” or zero cost, should be studied carefully. 


Alongside the need for genuine commitment by all stakeholders and pilot projects to assist to combat fake and promote real ethical recruitment, worker and community driven social monitoring of recruitment processes should also compliment or replace traditional auditing methods. This has been proposed by Electronics Watch. Such inclusive processes are complex and only with commitment and openness by all stakeholders to address challenges that will undoubtedly arise can they succeed. Without inclusive monitoring, ethical recruitment cannot be easily achieved.


Electronics Watch’s documentation alongside MWRN of the Calcomp casein Thailand illustrates almost three years of significant challenges by HP, Western Digital, Seagate and RBA to ensure ethical recruitment and address forced labour. This is despite their organisational pledges since 2015 to ensure zero cost recruitment. Despite potentially positive progress recently, these actors have until now been unable to ensure promotion of ethical recruitment channels, ensure remediation for unethical recruitment noraccept worker driven social monitoring. More than 10, 000 migrant workers from Myanmar have been negatively impacted and remain at risk of forced labour. Cal-comp is symptomatic of systems developed and responses taken by well-intended actors that fail to ensure ethical recruitment and remediation.


Whilst driving responsible recruitment forward, importantly remedies for systemic debt bondage of migrant workers already unfairly recruited for work must be ensured also. Yet the requirement imposed by Principle 22 of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for remediationfollowing incidents of unethical recruitment by global companies and private sector associations remain un-fulfilled. Likewise a September 2018pledge by the UK, Australian, New Zealand, US and Canadian government’s at the UN General Assembly applying ethical recruitment and remediation principles to public procurement supply chains remains rhetoric rather than an on the ground reality.


More than half a year ago now, the Telegraph and Guardian exposed unethical recruitment, forced labour and debt bondage in Malaysia at the world’s largest condom and rubber gloves suppliers to public procurement agencies, global retailers and brands, and agencies like UNFPA and USAID. However, suppliers have so far delivered inadequate or more often no remediation at all to workers concerned. Little support or pressure has been evident from buyers. Genuine ethical recruitment practices for newly recruited workers to these industries also remains ‘fake’ and challenged. As a result, debt bondage and forced labour remain prevalent. Whilst passports were returned to most impacted workers, they generally now work less, in compliance with international standards, but likewise for less income to payoff their debts. 


Finally, in addition to focusing on migrant recruitment processes, it is crucial today’s conference in Kuala Lumpur addresses the critical situation of an estimated 500,000 or more “irregular” migrant workers stranded in debt bondage and forced labour in Malaysia, resulting from the previous government’s re-hiring and regularisation scheme collapse. These victims, paying up to US$2, 000 for a 2016 to 2018 failed regularisation process, need to be remediated and regularised urgently prior to or at the same time as considering how to recruit new workers into Malaysia ethically. 


Responsible recruitment can only be driven forward if increasing rhetoric and theory on ethical migrant worker recruitment is applied in practice. This requires innovative realistic models of recruitment and remediation be piloted and evaluated. Genuine commitment of resources and effort from all stakeholders, alongside worker driven social monitoring, is also essential. Actors driving ethical migrant worker recruitment dialogue must also, if they are to ensure positive change, develop a proper understanding of how to ensure ethical recruitment practices in reality on the ground.

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